FIRST UP | Your Tuesday Briefing

by

Mars water — HTV’s delayed departure — Space Fence passes CDR — NASA terminates B612 agreement

Scientists believe small amounts of liquid water flow on the surface of Mars today. At a NASA press conference Monday, researchers provided evidence that dark streaks seen on the sides of some crater walls are produced by flowing water. While scientists long suspected the streaks, formally known as recurring slope lineae, were created by water, the latest study showed that the streaks contain hydrated salts that are only produced in the presence of liquid water. That water is a promising sign of life, although some scientists cautioned that the water may be too salty to be hospitable. Future studies of the streaks, by rovers or astronauts, could be hampered by planetary protection protocols to avoid contaminating them with terrestrial life.  [New York Times]

Political reaction | Members of Congress, and one U.S. presidential candidate, commented favorably on the Mars water discovery. “The more evidence we find of it [water], the more encouraged I am for future Mars missions,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement. “Finding water on Mars boosts likelihood of humans one day being able to live there,” tweeted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.  “There is no limit to what we can discover when we explore, ask questions, and listen to science,” tweeted Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. One exception: radio personality Rush Limbaugh cast doubt on the discovery on his show, believing it to be “a technique to advance the leftist agenda.” [House Science Commitee / Twitter / Mediaite]

A Japanese cargo ship departed the space station Monday after overcoming a technical issue. The station’s robotic arm released the HTV-5 cargo spacecraft at 12:53 p.m. Eastern time Monday, about 90 minutes later than originally planned. The initial attempt to release the spacecraft was halted after controllers reported an error message with the robotic arm system. The spacecraft, loaded with garbage, will reenter over the South Pacific today. [Spaceflight Now]

Virgin Galactic said Monday it is making progress on the rocket engines it will use on its smallsat launcher. The company said it recently carried out a 20-second static fire test of NewtonThree, the engine that will go on the first stage of LauncherOne, and tested a key component for the NewtonFour engine for the rocket’s upper stage. The engines will help enhance the payload capacity of LauncherOne, which the company said earlier this month would double to about 200 kilograms for missions to sun-synchronous orbit. [SpaceNews]

The Space Fence System has passed its critical design review. Lockheed Martin said Monday that the company completed the three-day review recently with the Air Force, allowing construction of the system to begin. The S-band radar, to be built on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, will track objects in orbit, and is scheduled to enter service in late 2018. [Lockheed Martin]

Press Conference Fatigue

“‘Nobody even cares that there’s some water on Mars; we have water on Earth — so you shouldn’t even bother having a stupid press conference unless there’s proof of alien guys with a bunch of eyes or tentacles or something,’ said Fort Wayne, IN resident Kyle Schultz, echoing the sentiment of Americans across the country who insisted that NASA stop telling them about new black holes, asteroids, or a type of element on another planet’s surface until they have pictures of orange or purple aliens running around a weird futuristic city.”

– from an article in the satirical publication The Onion, titled “Nation Demands NASA Stop Holding Press Conferences Until They Discover Some Little Alien Guys” and published hours after NASA’s press conference Monday about liquid water on Mars.

NASA has terminated a Space Act agreement with the B612 Foundation regarding near Earth object searches. Under the 2012 agreement, NASA was to provide technical support and tracking facilities for B612’s planned Sentinel space telescope, which the organization is raising funds privately to develop. NASA officials said that B612 failed to meet milestones in that agreement regarding its development, and the agency concluded it could no longer reserve funds to support it. B612 said it is continuing to raise funding for Sentinel and would consider approaching NASA again for support when the project is closer to launch. [Space Policy Online]

U.S. and Chinese officials met Monday in the first civil space policy dialogue between the two nations. At the meeting, held in Beijing, officials from the U.S. State Department and China National Space Administration exchanged information and discussed potential areas of cooperation, but made no agreements regarding any joint efforts. The two countries agreed to meet again in Washington next year. Any cooperation between the two countries is hampered by law that prohibits NASA from engaging in bilateral cooperation with China without congressional consent. [U.S. State Department]

India is considering turning over production of its PSLV rocket to industry. A.S. Kiran Kumar, chairman of the Indian space agency ISRO, said Monday that he would like to see Indian industry take over manufacturing of the PSLV launch vehicle in three to four years, a task today handled within the space agency. Kumar spoke after a PSLV launched an Indian astronomy satellite and several small satellites. [PTI]

The comet that Europe’s Rosetta mission is currently orbiting was once two objects. Planetary scientists said Monday they believe the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which has an unusual shape that resembles a duck, was formed when two objects collided at very low velocities and stuck together. Scientists added that while Rosetta spotted a crack in the “neck” region of the comet nucleus, there’s no evidence that it will split apart any time soon. [BBC]

Planet Labs will donate satellite imagery to support global sustainable development. The company, one of just two to participate in the recent United Nations’ Sustainable Development Summit in New York, said it will provide imagery valued at $60 million of selected regions of the Earth. That imagery, the company said, can be used in support of 15 out of 17 sustainable development goals established by the U.N. [Planet Labs]

An isotope of helium is, for some space advocates, like a religious incantation. The use of helium-3 harvested from the moon to power fusion reactors comes up from time to time in the media and by space advocates, including comments by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt at a conference last month. The problem: those fusion reactors don’t exist and won’t for decades, and mining helium-3 on the moon may be difficult. “The belief in helium-3 mining is a great example of a myth that has been incorporated into the larger enthusiasm for human spaceflight, a magical incantation that is murmured, but rarely actually discussed.” [The Space Review]